A digital leader – what on earth is that?

Written by Adrian Hancock, Chief Executive of Socitm

‘Digital leaders’ has (arguably) been a useful signifier pointing to a sufficiently broad range of contexts and characteristics to find utility in many sectors and disciplines. However, that may now be its undoing as that once broad appeal tends, unhelpfully, towards meaninglessness and adds very little our understanding, yet we instinctively know there is something important here that we must not lose. Things have changed, we are not the same as we were 10 years ago, nor is the context we work in or many of the people we work with.

We have digital leaders, digital mindsets, digital natives, digital quotients, digital strategies, digital disruption and so on, which can all get pretty confusing.

So, what does digital mean?

‘For some executives, it’s about technology. For others, digital is a new way of engaging with customers. And for others still, it represents an entirely new way of doing business. None of these definitions is necessarily incorrect. But such diverse perspectives often trip up leadership teams because they reflect a lack of alignment and common vision about where the business needs to go. This often results in piecemeal initiatives or misguided efforts that lead to missed opportunities, sluggish performance, or false starts……….

……….It’s tempting to look for simple definitions, but to be meaningful and sustainable, we believe that digital should be seen less as a thing and more a way of doing things. ‘ McKinsey

So, here we have perhaps a better way to begin to look at ‘digital’ in that we are pointed to some new way of doing, which implies new ways of thinking. We are moving into the realms of digital as a cultural metaphor not simply a description of a particular technology.

‘A cultural metaphor is any activity, phenomenon, or institution with which members of a given culture emotionally and/or cognitively identify. As such, the metaphor represents the underlying values expressive of the culture itself. Frequently, outsiders have a difficult time relating to and/or understanding the underlying values of a culture, and this book is designed to address this difficulty. Culture allows us to fill in the blanks, often unconsciously, when action is required, and cultural metaphors help us to see the values leading to action. This is probably the most interesting feature of culture.’ Gannon M J, 2002

If this is so, then what are the underlying values that express this culture that some people seem to instinctively ‘get’ and other find quite impenetrable?

‘Bring an open state of mind to defining digital. ‘Digital’ is far more than technology, a process or a mission statement; it is a state of mind, a way of doing things, a belief system.

A digital culture is a belief that by being more collaborative, connected, adaptive, flexible, data driven, transparent, diverse and open that we can create more positive futures for ourselves, our businesses and our societies. Every organisation’s take on what that specifically means for them can differ. But a key to building an effective digital culture is agreeing what your organisation’s core digital values are.’ Avado

We have moved a million miles from the original meaning of digital and although it will remain inextricably linked to ‘technology’ in certain ways, it has also broken free from that particular constraint.

If we take this expanded and expanding understanding of digital then, when we use the term ‘digital’ we are talking about a world in which collaborative, connected, adaptive, flexible, data driven, transparent, diverse, open, innovative and agile are defining characteristics. This is the world we live in and there is no going back.

There are many of the long standing leadership traits and skills that remain valuable and necessary in whatever world we inhabit BUT there are new skills and capabilities that enhance leadership effectiveness in a ‘digital’ world. Perhaps the evolution of our original phrase ‘digital leaders’ has taken us to ‘leaders in a digital age’ and I’m fairly sure the next stage will simply be to drop the word ‘digital’ altogether as it will simply be taken as read. Digital culture will be the norm and the next thing will already be knocking on the door for our attention. What are the new skills and capabilities?

That’s for next time.

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